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It had started as a random bad feeling, but continued throughout the morning while he was running errands. Somehow Aether just couldn’t seem to shake it and finally gave in, making his way to Tenshukaku, to the Shogun’s lair. Soldiers greeted him on his way and outwardly nothing seemed out of place, yet as soon as he opened the doors to the Shogun’s chambers, Aether knew he’d done the right thing.

The Shogun was standing there, motionless like a statue, but in front of that… Childe. His usual cocky smile was firmly in place and it seemed like nothing was amiss, just a normal discussion between the archon and one of the Fatui harbingers. Aether should be relieved, but the bad feeling just intensified.

“Ah Aether, how nice of you to join us. You’re just the audience I would want,” Childe greeted him and chuckled, then fixed the Shogun with narrowed eyes.

“I challenge you to a duel before the throne.” Aether’s eyes widened as he remembered his own fight with Signora and how it had ended. Yes, she was his enemy, but seeing her evaporate into nothingness was something that still haunted him now.

Childe was a capable fighter that could probably hold his own against the Shogun for a while, but the Musou no Hitotachi would eradicate him just the same. Aether didn’t want to witness someone else’s death at the Shogun’s hand, but especially not Childe’s.

“But I want to fight the real you, not that puppet you have created,” Childe demanded and Aether wanted to go, hold him back, bring him to his senses, yet he couldn’t.

A weak “Don’t do it” was all he could whisper and it only earned him laughter from Childe.

“Do you have so little faith in me?” he inquired and Aether wanted to shake him, wanted to tell him that it wasn’t about faith or his abilities. The electro archon was something not easily trifled with.

A bright light blinded him for a moment and Aether knew that he was looking at Beelzebul, Raiden Ei, when he could see again. There was a distinct difference between her and the Shogun, in demeanor and how they carried themselves.

“I accept your challenge, harbinger.” Her voice was calm, eyes focused on her opponent and she didn’t even spare Aether a single glance. Spear at the ready, Ei waited for Childe to attack, and attack he did.

It was almost like watching a dance, their movements as graceful as they were deadly, yet they seemed evenly matched for the moment.

“That’s what I’m talking about!” The joy in Childe’s voice was palpable and if the situation had been any other, Aether would have been infected by it, cheering for his… friend. Because that’s what they were now, right? He still had his doubts about the harbinger, but after the events in Liyue things had been good between them.

Childe sometimes showed up in the most unlikely places and the way he cared for his little brother and the rest of his siblings was admirable. Aether had felt rather melancholy when he’d watched Childe with Teucer, remembering happy times with Lumine.

“You are quite the accomplished fighter, harbinger, but surely you must understand that you cannot win against me,” Ei questioned, voice still even and calm, not out of breath at all. Not a single hair was out of place, while Aether could see the sweat pearl on Childe’s forehead. Things didn’t look good.

“Won’t know if I don’t try.” His breathing was labored and the overwhelming cockiness had given way to doubt. Childe barely dodged the next attack and fell to the floor, directly in front of Aether. Ei loomed over him, ready to strike a devastating blow, but Childe managed to roll away at the last second.

“This is madness,” Aether whispered and Childe sighed. He got up and dusted off his clothes, stance much less proud and self assured.

“If I don’t make it,” he started, then had to parry another blow, “tell my siblings that I love them, whenever you make it to Snezhnaya.”

Their eyes met for a split second and Childe flashed him a quick smile, fully aware that he had found his match, someone he couldn’t overcome.

Ei herded him from one side of the room to the other, until Childe was lying on the floor, the point of her spear against his throat.

“You have lost, harbinger.” Childe nodded and sat up, looking at the archon looming over him. Her violet eyes were shining with the same ethereal light as before and her spear was gone, replaced with the sword.

Aether didn’t know why he suddenly moved, his legs carrying forward of their own accord, but everything inside of him wanted to protect Childe from this fate, wanted to prevent him from suffering the same deadly blow that ultimately extinguished Signora’s life.

“STOP!” His own voice sounded foreign to his ears and Aether gathered Childe into his arms, holding him close. He expected the blow to strike his back any second now, but nothing happened.

Slowly Aether opened his eyes and looked at Childe, still pressed to his chest. They were so close, closer than ever before and Aether felt his heart beat faster. He blinked and finally turned around, facing Ei.

“Traveler, I am most surprised at your actions.” She eyed him with curiosity, sword still firmly in hand.

“Is this man, this harbinger, really worth risking your life for?” Aether nodded and helped Childe to his feet, who oddly enough stayed close to him. The look in his eyes was unreadable though.

“He has his flaws, but I don’t want to see him die.” He paused, memories of Childe with Teucer, their chance meetings and everything else flashing through his mind once again.

“His siblings need him and… I think I do, too. So I beg you, please pardon him.”

Aether bowed down in front of Ei, unable to even look at Childe now. He didn’t know why he had said these things, but just the same, he hoped they would make a difference.

Aether startled slightly when a hand suddenly grabbed his, intertwining their fingers with each other. Childe gently squeezed his hand and a small smile lifted the corners of Aether’s lips, even though he was still on edge.

“I see. I will grant your wish, traveler, just this one time. I hope you will not regret your choice.” With those words she vanished back into her plane, leaving behind a relieved Aether.

“Leave,” the Shogun commanded and Aether didn’t waste any time. Childe willingly went with him and when they had exited the building, he could finally breathe again.

“You’re an idiot.” Childe looked surprised at his words, but chuckled.

“Yeah, I have to confess you’re right there. I’m sorry.” It was strange to see such a serious look on his face, but Aether hoped that they could avoid similar situations in the future. He knew that Childe lived for the thrill of a fight, but he didn’t want him to throw his life away just like that.

“It’s okay, just… Don’t be so reckless again.” Childe nodded, then stepped close to Aether, caging him against the wall. His eyes widened and he didn’t know what to say.

“I think we need to talk.”